A few years ago, when I’d get asked about attacks on college funding and affordability, my response was simple. I’d say that we, as a nation, were in the process of dismantling public higher education in this country and we weren’t even talking about it. Stupefying tuition hikes and mind-boggling cuts to state funding were taking place year after year, but we weren’t having a national discussion about whether we thought that made any sense.
These days that conversation is happening. It began to bubble up around the time that aggregate student debt hit one trillion dollars in late 2011, and took a step forward in the 2012 presidential election. It’s still not where I’d like it to be, or where the scale of the crisis suggests it should be, but it’s happening.
And one thing we’re seeing as a result is strong confirmation of something that a lot of us have believed for a long time: Americans really like public higher education. We think it’s great. We think it’s great and we think it’s important and we want everyone to have more access to it. We like it and we want to keep it.
There’s a new study out from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation that puts some numbers on these impressions. Though many of the questions are frustratingly elliptical (Why ask how important respondents think student diversity is to colleges, but not how important they think it is themselves?), the core findings are stark.
Let’s start with this: 94% of Americans believe we should work to broaden access to post-secondary education, while only 21% believe that higher ed is “affordable for everyone in this country who needs it.”
Public higher ed is a universally valued good, and there is a near-consensus that it needs to be made more accessible. Those facts alone won’t reverse the trends we’re seeing in college funding, but they should shape the way activists approach the problem.
There are some organizing campaigns in which the battle is a battle to change popular perception.
Ours isn’t one of them.